Sunday, 1 July 2018

Brock and Bologna: Paradiso… 7th Heaven (1927), with Timothy Brock, Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival 2018

If Mary and Ernst lifted had us on our feet in the Piazza then Janet, Charles and Frank took us off the ground in the stunning setting of the eighteenth-century Teatro Comunale. Rain had stopped playing on the Wednesday and the whole shebang shifted to the orchestra’s home to sensational effect.

You couldn’t find a grander venue for a film, the acoustics were perfect for Timothy Brock’s outstanding score – soaring, heartfelt, powerful and emotionally-aligned; this was a mighty song for the two humans on screen, locked in their story of perfect love… The picture itself was a new digital restoration funded by 20th Cebtury Fox, based on a nitrate print from the 1927 negative made in 1930... this was its European premier.

Lights down and the focus is immediately on Janet Gaynor’s amazing febrility, her delicate face anguished and alive with the interminable terror of Diane’s life crushed by the ferocious disdain of her alcoholic sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell). The New York Herald Tribune noted at the time that Gaynor could “…combine ingénue sweetness with a certain suggestion of wideawake vivacity; to mix facial lyricism with a credible trace of earthiness.” There is no doubt in her presentation nor in Brockwell’s for that matter; Nana is in Hell and even her sister - especially her sister – must join her. She beats her senseless with a whip and forces her to forage for every drop of absinth.

There are further depths but only literally, as we find the ludicrously dashing Charles Farrell as Chico the cleaner: he is by his own mantra, a “remarkable man” and one, who whilst he works in the sewer is always looking up and dreaming of the gutter… and beyond.

Things getting out of hand...
A visit from their well-off Aunt Valentine (Jessie Haslett) and Uncle George (Brandon Hurst) offers the women some hope but Diane has just enough strength to resist her sister’s attempts to make her lie about their virtuosity. She is violently cast down for this and is in the process of being throttled in the gutter when Chico’s hand reaches out of the drains to lift Nana high above a manhole – there’s a superb overhead shot of her struggling against his might.

Chico has to lift Diane up – there is almost no fight left in her. When her sister is arrested and tries to drag Diane with her, he intervenes again telling the police that Diane is his wife. This lie needs to be substantiated and so Chico takes Diane up the stairway to the seventh floor – the arrangement is meant to be temporary, only until the Police are satisfied that their relationship is real. There’s a lovely light touch in this film and Diane’s panic at seeing the single bed in Chico’s room is played out with comedic concern until she sees her gallant room-mate set out to sleep on the floor.

But things don’t end there, and Diane grows on Chico in spite of her wayward hairdressing skills. Farrell towers over Gaynor but there’s a real gentility and respect in their physical relationship. What was a marriage for convenience soon becomes something more – Chico and Diane are Heaven together. There’s faith in the film but it isn’t necessarily derived from organised religion. Diane and Chico’s love is based on their faith in each other and they remain true to themselves. Even their marriage is a home-made affair: no need for a priest when they are sure of love.

War is declared… and the real tests are to come as Chico heads off to the front. He gives Diane one of two religious medals handed to him by a priest but, again, these symbols will prove to be more about their own devotion. They promise to hold the necklaces every day at 11 and to “be” with the other – to connect no matter what the distance and to find their personal heaven.

This is something of a repeated theme for Borzage and you find it even with his early films such as Pride of Palomar. I don’t know if he believed in the “Beau Dieu” but he was sure of love alright. As are we all, at the end of the day, it is all you need. Even after death… the war will be long and with so many tragedies around them can Diane and Chico’s state of grace possibly be maintained? Please see this film and find out.

Mr Brock’s score simply shone, radiating with emotional force out from the orchestra pit filling the Teatro Comunale’s baroque walls and stalls with a magical mix of cinematic fantasias: a timeless mix of cinematic symphonies perfectly moulded around this most emotionally-engaging film.

Rich brass lifted our hearts as strings combined with the wind section in depicting the everyday drudgery and threat of Diane’s struggles. This was classical film composition of the highest order with far more subtle give and take than most modern thunderation… Brock knows what he’s dealing with and is as carefully delicate with his Gaynor as he is playful with Farrell: he underscores their love story and pricks our tear ducts as they are united and re-united. An enigma variation of unresolved, beautiful lines, that converge more than once in joyous crescendo. The violence from Nana and then the War is conveyed equally well – with stark atonal clashes, hope-less clarinet and weary strings… we share in musically-living every moment. And, after Ares finally comes Diana and a simply lovely recurring theme for our couple that all but breaks my cynical old heart…

A few days earlier we’d walked past the Teatro Comunale and dearly wished we could see a concert there; well, we did and it was indeed something to write home about!

Bravo Timothy Brock, Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra and Borzage and his players. 7th Heaven is one of the greatest love stories in silent film and tonight we were all indeed high in the air, past Cloud 9 and in Heaven no. 7 with Chico, Diane and a full house of silent dreamers. Grazzie Mille!


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